On November 8, the United States went to the polls to elect a successor to President Barack Obama, whose second term ends in January. Voters delivered a victory to businessman Donald Trump, who was able to secure victories in a sufficient number of crucial swing states to achieve the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
President-elect Trump is now tasked with setting up his administration and, as he weighs cabinet picks and announces his 100-day plan,[i] analysts are beginning to consider just how a President Trump will handle a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. One such issue is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal – that was negotiated by President Obama.
On the campaign trail, president-elect Trump took a tough stance against the Iran deal. In September 2015, at a rally in Washington, DC, Trump questioned its utility to U.S. security, asserting the deal would lead to a lot of economic benefits for Iran without yielding any positives for the United States.[ii]
He added further criticism of the deal at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in March 2016, calling it “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.”[iii] Trump went on to state, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
President-elect Trump’s ability to end the deal outright, however, is limited. AEI Resident Scholar Michael Rubin pointed out several challenges to doing so, noting the deal has been enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution (2231) and much of the sanctions relief has already been provided to Iran.[iv] Even though American businesses have been wary of approaching Iran for business deals, European firms have sought to take advantage of the deal,[v] likely meaning that, absent any major violations by Iran, there will be little appetite among EU members for “snap-back sanctions.”
Iranian officials have pushed back on the incoming Trump administration’s ability to revise the nuclear agreement. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet the day after the election that there was “no possibility that [the deal] can be changed by a single government.”[vi] Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expects that the president-elect will accept the nuclear deal once in office.[vii]
Trump and his campaign have tacitly acknowledged the challenges to ending the deal and instead appear poised to review the deal with an aim toward stricter enforcement of its terms. Trump has notably said he will “police the hell” out of the deal if nothing else. At AIPAC, even as he had noted his first priority was to dismantle the nuclear accord, he stated that at the least, “we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable,” demonstrating flexibility in his approach.
However, since the election, some talk continues about revising the deal. On November 10, senior Trump foreign policy adviser Walid Phares told BBC Radio that the president-elect is likely to review the deal and perhaps renegotiate it.[viii] Such renegotiation would involve dialogue with both the U.S. Congress and the Iranian government.
The Trump administration may or may not be able to get a revised version of the accord passed. The Republican Party maintained its control of both chambers of the Congress, but only narrowly so, necessitating dialogue with Democratic lawmakers, particularly those who had rejected the nuclear accord. One such lawmaker is Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), whom the president-elect has reached out to for discussions on a range of issues in the aftermath of the election.[ix]
Even absent a revision, the Trump administration will be able to utilize provisions in the current nuclear deal itself to hold Iran accountable for violations of the accord. Tehran signed off on the Additional Protocol, which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency greater ability to verify that a state meets its safeguard commitments – including through greater access to facilities and data from the host government. A Trump administration can press to ensure that these verification tools are utilized and not obstructed by the Iranian government.
Regarding ballistic missiles, Annex B of the nuclear deal calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”[x] Tehran has interpreted this measure as meaning it can still test ballistic missiles since it asserts the missiles are not designed with the purpose of carrying nuclear warheads. A Trump administration, by contrast, can interpret the related measures under Annex B more strictly, holding Iran accountable for tests of ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads regardless of whether they were designed with such intent in mind.
The Trump administration can also block weapons sales to Iran, at least for the next four years. Under the current nuclear deal, military hardware pursuant to the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms cannot be sold to Iran except by approval of the U.N. Security Council, where the United States wields veto power. While not including air defense batteries, the register includes fighter jets and tanks, which Iran has at times expressed interest in acquiring from Russia.[xi]
The president-elect’s negotiating style is largely built on taking tough positions first, with an objective of securing concessions that otherwise might not have been possible. He is likely to push hard for revising the nuclear deal – perhaps even issuing another call for its dismantlement in the coming months as he gears up to address the issue – but is positioned to explore a variety of options to maximize pressure on Iran.
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[i] Amity Kelly and Barbara Sprunt, “Here Is What Donald Trump Wants To Do In His First 100 Days,” NPR, November 9, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/11/09/501451368/here-is-what-donald-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days
[iii] The Times of Israel, “Full text of Donald Trump’s speech to AIPAC,” March 22, 2016. http://www.timesofisrael.com/donald-trumps-full-speech-to-aipac/
[iv] Michael Rubin, “Can Trump walk away from the Iran deal?” AEI, November 10, 2016. https://www.aei.org/publication/can-trump-walk-away-from-the-iran-deal/
[v] Jim Boulden, “European firms already making Iran deals,” CNN Money, January 18, 2016. http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/18/news/companies/iran-sanctions-europe-companies/
[vii] Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, “Iran Expects Trump To Accept Nuclear Deal ‘Once Dust Settles'”, November 11, 2016. http://www.rferl.org/a/iran-zarif-trump-nuclear-deal-prague-czech-republic/28110404.html
[viii] Joshua Davidovich, “Adviser says Trump won’t rip up Iran deal, signals he may not move embassy,” The Times of Israel, November 11, 2016. http://www.timesofisrael.com/adviser-says-trump-wont-rip-up-iran-deal-signals-he-may-not-move-embassy/
[ix] Steven T. Dennis, “At Times, Trump May Tap Unlikely Ally in Congress: Chuck Schumer,” Bloomberg Politics, November 9, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-11-09/at-times-trump-may-tap-unlikely-ally-in-congress-chuck-schumer
[x] Security Council Resolution 2231, S/RES/2231 (July 20, 2015), available from http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2231(2015)
[xi] RT, “Iran looks to spend $8bn on Russian arms,” February 16, 2016. https://www.rt.com/business/332604-iran-arms-russia-deal/